Papa Hemingway- A review of the 1966 memoir by A.E. Hotchner

Based on the author’s friendship with the literary legend in the last 13 years of his life, is this a serious portrait or a just another exercise in analysing the tortured Hemingway psyche? 

I could have gone down the cliched route by giving this review a title like ‘the lion in winter’. There is a melancholy and defeated air hanging over the final chapters of this book, mainly because they consist of Hotchner’s version of seeing his friend’s personality disintegrate and his life-force drain away.

Yet the resounding minor note on which Hemingway’s life and therefore this book end doesn’t completely drown out the happier tone struck elsewhere. In fact Hotchner’s portrait does a good job in adding extra levels to our understanding of Hemingway. He remained dedicated to his craft, for instance, and personally it seems that although his final decade and half of life had a lot of deep lows, he also enjoyed great highs. For all the physical and mental struggle, it’s reassuring to know that he remained productive until the final year or so.

Hotchner was a friend of Hemingway’s in the final 13 years of the author’s life, beginning in 1948 when as a  young journalist Hotchner was sent to Cuba to doorstep the man who was his idol. From there a friendshi devloped, and the book’s remaining chapters are accounts of the times when the two got together in various parts of Europe and the US.

Hotchner portrays himself as a close and admiring friend, and it’s a self portrait that rings true. To that extent this book succeeds in putting Hemingway centre stage because Hotchner was obviously in a position to observe him closely and record all he said of note. Although the tone is perhaps overly respectful at times, Hotchner’s intentions seem to be honest and true, resulting in a book that is more a tactful ‘the author as I knew him’ type of work, rather than a trivial and exploitative ‘reveals all’ hack job.

At the very core of the book are conversations with Hemingway. There’s plenty of incidental colour and detail, such as what they did in Venice together, or who they summered with in Spain. Ultimately, however, this book reminded me of a traditional book in the ‘table talk’ genre. It’s essentially Hemingway talking: reminiscing on his life, revealing things about himself, analysing the world around him, opining on things and most interestingly musing on the writer’s life and giving words of writerly advice.

Perhaps some might feel uneasy at the thought of Hotchner exhausting the detail of a personal friendship to turn them into a book. Make no mistake though: this book is a tribute rather than a simplistic cash in. And anyway, 47 years after the book’s first publication, and 52 years after Hemingway’s suicide, Hotchner’s homage  seems a paragon of restraint in our modern era, when the Hemingway name sells everything from furniture to rum.




Coming late to Kipling.

Review of Rudyard Kipling, Collected [should read “Selected“] Short Stories, Everyman’s Classics.

Kipling remains a household name in all but the most book-bereft of homes, but how of much of him has the average reader actually read these days?

I don’t know if I’d be classed as an average reader,  but perhaps my experience of him is similar to other people’s. Had I been born at any time up to- say for argument’s sake- 1940,  I would probably have had a keen knowledge of Kipling. For boys and girls growing up in bookish households in the early and mid twentieth century, Kipling was part of the canon: the pick of the poems, Stalkey and Co, The Jungle Books and Kim were all childhood staples.

I am not suggesting that post-war children have not been reading Kipling. Far from it. But I think you could argue that the more general popular disregard of his work has led to fewer children reading him than he deserves.

Growing up in the 80’s, I suspect my own experience of Kipling was more the contemporary norm, in that I did not read Kipling, but knew the name. I remember going to see Disney’s “The Jungle Book” at the cinema around the age of 8 or 9 but perhaps I didn’t make the link. It certainly didn’t occur to me to read those stories, and I don’t remember Kipling being read to me at home.  At some stage a teacher in primary school might have read read my class some of the Just So stories.

Later on in my late teens or early twenties I began an oddly disjointed relationship with Kipling. He still remains popular as a poet, if only for one poem, “If”. I first encountered it around that time when it was voted “the nation’s (i.e. the United Kingdom’s) favourite poem”. However, I was vaguely aware that Kipling was the de facto “poet of empire”, and besides I saw Jim Davidson quoted in the paper as saying “If” was his favourite poem. So that was it as far as I was concerned. If Jim Davidson liked it, then I assumed that Kipling’s poetry was most certainly down at the cheaper end of British culture.

That could have been the end of things.

Except that around the same time, in my late teens, something strange happened. A local bookshop was having a closing down sale, and my mom came home with, among other things, a bargain copy of Mrs Bathurst and Other Stories publish by OUP.  I remember reading the title story as well as another neglected gem called “Proofs of Holy Writ”. The more mysterious and speculative of Kipling’s short stories are not the kind of thing you might expect a teenager to be reading, but I put prejudice aside and took them for what they were (“Mrs Bathurst” is a genuinely enigmatic and compelling story).

But I put the book aside again.  It was only years later, quite recently in fact, that Auden’s line from “In Memoriam W.B. Yeats” on how time “will pardon Kipling and his views” has come true in my case. Everyman books publish a “Collected Stories” of Kipling, which is as good a one-volume overview as you can get at the moment. Kipling wrote a great deal of stories, and there are a lot of selections out there. But if you want only one, or perhaps are new to the writer, then the Everyman is a very good book to have. Bear in mind, though, that the book is a ‘selected’ edition, and not a collected as claimed in the title. As for the actual selection on offer, I’d say it’s representative rather than definitive. Because Kipling was a master story teller who was also very prolific, any editor trying to make a selection is on a bit of a hiding to nothing, in that they’re bound to miss out something that some reader or other would consider essential. However, this is about as good an all-round collection as you could wish for. All the key periods of Kipling’s career are catered for, from the early Indian stories of his Plain Tales from the Hills period, to selections from “Stalkey and Co.” right up to some uncannily good later work. All of this goes to show what an under-rated writer of adult fiction he continues to be, especially in the United Kingdom.

I’ll just pick three examples from among many of the treasures to be found here, in order to convey why I like him so much. First there’s “Mrs Bathhurst” which is a tale of desire, and which  roams right across the British Empire. Then there’s “The Man Who would be King” which is one of the greatest stories written by anyone anywhere ever, and sums up far better than the poem “The White Man’s Burden” the dangerous obsessions with riches, power and prestige that continue to drive would-be empire builders to this day. And finally there’s a late, post- World War I story called “The Gardener” which deals with the emotional aftermath of losing a child in that dreadful conflagration. Even the most rabid anti-Kiplingite would have to admit that it is touching and heartfelt without ever succumbing to sentimentality. In fact here’s a trick to play on your literary friends. Read them “The Gardener” without them knowing who it’s by, and then see if they can guess the author. Kipling’s might well be the last name to spring to mind.

There is plenty more to confound expectation here, as well as stories to shock, delight, make you laugh, make you think, make you smile and to send a shiver down your spine. The settings for a lot of these stories will surprise you too. I can think of very few writers with the sheer imagination to write so convincingly about so many diverse kinds of people in so many diverse settings and epochs. He even tried his hand at a kind of proto-science fiction, an example of which is included. Above all these stories will make you realise that, for all his faults, there is far more to Kipling than “If”, the Jungle Book and his being the de facto poet of Empire. One thing I think any intelligent reader would have to agree is that at his very best he was one of the greatest english writers ever, and in having this book you will have most of his strongest work right there in your hands.

As if to square the circle, my son has recently started dipping into the  Just So stories. He is also the proud owner of a 1930’s edition of the Jungle Books, which we found in a second hand shop. After the reading the first couple of pages he found them irresistible. I think it goes to show that good writing is what matters, regardless of our feelings about the writer. So whether we see Kipling as a deeply dodgy relic of our colonial past, or as a misunderstood genius, it might be worth ‘treating those two imposters just the same’ and putting them aside once and for all, while we get on with the more serious work of judging his works on their individual merits.

Is this the truly essential Hemingway?

Ernest Hemingway, The Collected Stories, ed James Fenton, Everyman’s Library Classics.

For a number of years in the UK a book has been available called “The Essential Hemingway”, consisting of the whole of his novel “Fiesta”, excerpts from some of his other novels, and most of the major short stories. It’s a good collection, which has a decent stab at trying to be a version of “Hemingway’s Greatest Hits”. However, to really get to know this writer, and to know the full force of the smack around the intellectual and emotional chops that he can produce, you need to do yourself a favour and read the stories, preferably in order. I’m going to argue here that it’s the collected stories that make up the truly essential Hemingway.

The Everyman edition is  a beautifully produced hardback volume of all of Hemingway’s collected and uncollected stories. There are some major differences between this and the other claimant to the title of ultimate Hemingway story collection, the ‘Finca Vigia’ version. In the ‘Finca Vigia’, the editors include pieces that for the sake of argument they class as short fiction. However, the editor of the Everyman, James Fenton, doesn’t include these, arguing that they are excerpts from longer works which are available elsewhere (for example, sections from the novel “To Have and Have Not”).

As a result the Everyman contains the celebrated 1939 story collection The First 49 Stories, together with work uncollected there, some post-1949 short fiction and some items of jevenilia. I bought it as a replacement for my very old Jonathan Cape edition of The First 49 Stories, and I am very pleased with it.

It is worth investing in this book rather than the other collections of Hemingway’s short fiction for two main reasons. The first and most obvious one is that this book collects the short fiction altogether in one place. This simplifies things because Hemingway’s short work has been rounded up in various books over the years, and sometimes rather confusingly. Also, this book captures the essence of his brilliance, so much so that it is this book that truly deserves the title “The Essential Hemingway”. And although Hemingway wrote three indisputably classic novels (“Fiesta”, “A Farewell to Arms” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls”) I increasingly feel that this book contains his finest writing of all.

I think Hemingway is one of those writers you keep coming back to if you identify with his work. Personally speaking, my interest in other authors has come and gone over the years, but Hemingway is one of the very first ‘serious’ writers whose work I sought out in my teens, and my interest has remained consistent for 20 years. I might go a year or more without reading anything by him, but he’s always there, the yardstick by which all other prose writers- and a good few poets too- are judged in my mind.

No-one beats Hemingway for the clarity and precision of his vision of the world and the way he expressed this. It’s often overlooked these days, but this man really did change the way that a lot of people wrote. He learned from the best literary teachers in order to form his own pared-down, razor-sharp way of writing. Like other great artists he forged his own style, and it’s a testament to his talent that this is present from virtually the very beginning, in the “In Our Time” collection. This book still has the power to move a reader very much. I can only imagine the effect on the reader when it was first published in the 20s.

Hemingway once wrote of Nelson Algren’s work that “this is a man writing and you should not read it if you cannot take a punch”. This statement is not the product of the bullish machismo that Hemingway is still accused of (and, let’s face it, was guilty of in his laziest writing). Instead it’s really a statement that acknowledges how some writers are unflinching and extremely serious to the point of being brutal. The same statement applies to Hemingway. He was a great artist, and as such he tackled the big universal themes head on. Many of his very best stories deal with some of them: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is a portrait of three very different people, the eponymous American society figure, his faithless wife and the British hunter they engage to lead them on safari. In relatively few pages the story says more about courage, cowardice, shame, regret and human weakness than some writers manage in a whole novel. “The Snows of Kilimanjiro” tells of a dying writer who feels that he has dissipated his talent and laments all that he will never have the chance to write. “On the Quai at Smyrna” is effectively a monologue by a British Officer who witnessed the Greek evacuation of Turkey, but behind the seemingly offhand language and stiff-upper-lip understatement, the reader glimpses the full horror of a whole people forced to up sticks and move en masse. “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” is a profound vignette, being a study in hopelessness and loneliness, a piece that James Joyce no less considered to be one of the best short pieces ever written.

There are other stories in this book that are rightly hailed as classic, and others that are less well known. If you are a newcomer you will find plenty to engage you. If you know his work you will probably find fresh delights in this edition (upon receiving this book the first title that caught my attention was “The Capital of the World”, a story I’d either overlooked or just plain forgotten. When I read it it was a real heartbreaker!).

Another bonus of this edition is its focus on the work from the 1950s. There’s a school of thought that says Hemingway did his best work early, and then dissipated his talent through too much shooting, fishing and drinking, so that it only re-emerged in beautiful late flickers like “The Old Man and the Sea”. Well, the later stories prove that there was plenty of life left in the old dog, before his nerve and then his mind finally failed him.

The only thing this book lacks is Hemingway’s preface from the original edition of The First Forty Nine Stories, which contains one of the most telling phrases I know not just about writing but about anything in life worth doing:

In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dulled and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well oiled in the closet, but unused. 

Alexandria: City of Letters.

Over the last year or so I’ve been reading on and off about Alexandria in Egypt. This all stemmed from my reading a history of the Byzantine empire and taking things from there.

Classical Alexandria was a vitally important city and retains its fascination for scholars and people interested in history. It also seems like a fascinating place today, and I would love to pay a visit there one day.

The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World

by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid.

The title makes a grand claim, but the authors provide page after page of evidence to justify it, in a concise, informative and highly readable account of one of the great cities in human history. It takes us from its foundation by Alexander the Great, careful early nurturing by its true father Ptolemy I, right up until its decline as an intellectual and commercial hub in the early 400s A.D. (thanks to tub-thumping Christians) and the final curtain in the early 600s (thanks to Arab conquerors who founded Cairo and relegated Alexandria to distant-second-city status).

As well as being a straight narrative account which is based on all of the key reliable sources, the authors also go into detail to set the intellectual scene. Hence rather than just saying “in such and such a year X did this or Y discovered that”, the authors actually go into great detail about the nature of the wonderful discoveries and innovations to come out of this City, and carefully explain why they were so significant both in their time and for us now. While not neglecting the things Alexandria is most famous for (the Library and the Lighthouse for instance) they mention everything of note that came out of the City, and all in all that is a hell of a list of achievements.

Somewhere in the acknowledgments for this book, the authors pay their dues to Bill Bryson. He’s a good model to follow, since as in the best of Bryson what you get here is a reliable survey of a subject, well-written and which tells you all you need to know. Effectively it’s two interested layman writing for other laymen. The result is an intelligent and engaging book, full of enthusiasm and the highest regard for this stellar City.

Thanks to the authors’ care in describing Alexandria within the context of history and wider Mediterranean culture, you will come away from this book knowing that when we speak of the great cities of antiquity, we shouldn’t just think in terms of Athens, Rome, Antioch, Carthage and the like.  Alexandria should never be too far from our thoughts either.

Alexandria Lost: From the Advent of Christianity to the Arab Conquest

by Bojana Mojsov

This is a decent monograph. The author puts everything in context by giving a brief history of the City’s foundation and its subsequent rise to pre-eminence as a seat of learning and trading powerhouse. The main focus of the book, however, is the decline and fall of the City alluded to in the title. This ‘loss’ of power, influence and knowledge came as a result chiefly of religious disputes and other geopolitical causes, chiefly the decline of the Roman Empire in the West, and external pressures on the Byzantine Empire.  As a consequence, the book is especially good at tracing the precise ebb and flow of the Arab conquest of Egypt and the final Byzantine withdrawal.

The book contains a useful timeline of the key events, and contains many illuminating photographs and illustrations. Especially good are the author’s own pictures which give a good feel for what the City looks like today and for what historical sites remain.

The Vanished Library

by Luciano Canfora.

Italian classical scholar Canfora takes us through all of the extant sources, to not only piece together what the Library of Alexandria might have been like, but also speculate as to what actually happened to it. One of the book’s chief virtues is that, given there is not that much in the historical record about the Library, rather than flounder about in ignorance and unfounded conjecture, Canfora looks at the records that describe other ancient libraries, in order to arrive at a general sense of what Alexandria’s institution might have been like. This is a very useful approach, since it helps clarify what such buildings were actually like in terms of size and layout. Those who imagine that Alexandria’s Library was an ancient version of great modern institutions like the British Library or the New York Public Library will find these chapters of special interest.

Upon its release some reviewers compared Canfora to Borges, and at times certain chapters do attain a synthesis of scholarly essay and imaginative reconstruction of events. This doesn’t undermine the book as history (though some expert scholars might disagree) but for me, as a general reader, it helps bring the past alive.

In short this book is a beautifully crafted summary of all the relevant sources that, taken together, help piece together a fragmentary narrative of those most mythical of libraries. It demands a lot from the reader, but with the help of useful additions like a comprehensive timeline you are never really lost. In fact the main thing you will take away from this book, along with your enhanced knowledge, is a sense of sadness that so much was lost. But then again, as Gibbon pointed out and Canfora reiterates, given all the ravages that the great ancient cities and book collections underwent over time, the wonder of it all is that we have so much ancient writing still available.

C.P. Cavafy: The Collected Poems (Oxford World’s Classics)

First some comments on the edition: I compared this in a bookshop with other versions available, and by far and away I found this to be the best. The fact that this is a parallel text is a bonus for readers of greek. However, the main selling point is the sensible and informative introduction, the useful chronology of Cavafy’s life and the notes that don’t try and explain the poems’ meanings, but give you just enough to get going on making sense of the harder verses for yourself (which is always just as it should be in my view). I also compared the translations of a couple of poems, and plumped for this edition, since there’s nothing unnatural or ‘un-english’ about the syntax or word choices. As the introduction states, Cavafy developed such a distinctive poetic voice that this can’t help but come through in translation, and these renderings seem to do him full justice.

The poetry itself is a revelation to me. I do have a liking for writers who take historical events and who try to explore them from the inside, from the points of view of those who were (or who may have been) there. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” is an example of this. Robert Graves and Rudyard Kipling are two writers who did it at length. Cavafy is, I think, the master of them all. Being a Greek Alexandrian his work shows a keen sense of history, in particular an awareness of how important his city was in classical times. Hence his tendency to use his poetry to make sense of what it could have been like to live in classical times. A good example of this is the poem “A Priest at the Serapeum”, which explores the complex and ambiguous thoughts of a son, a committed Christian, on the death of his father, a pagan priest at the City’s most important temple.

Cavafy is also a great lyric poet. Homoerotic desire fuelled a lot of this work, but not all of it, and in lyrics like the famous “Ithaca” he strikes a universal chord. Regardless of your nationality, age or orientation, there’s something in Cavafy that can speak to all of us.

Given that his total poetic output is relatively small, I wouldn’t really bother with a selected edition. Get this book and it will last you a lifetime.

And just in case you’re wandering, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet is on my bookshelf, and I plan to start on it soon.

What have en english war hero, a Romantic wanderer and a heavy metal pioneer got in common?

Nothing much, except for they’ve all had books written about them and I’ve read them all. This post throws together three different books: two on Byronic literary adventurers, and one on that fierce heavy metal innovator Tony Iommi.

Patrick Leigh Fermor.


Put your fag out and get on with it man! PLF at home in Greece, taking a break from writing.

There’s been a resurgence of interest in the english travel writer since his death in 2011. Last year his biography was published to virtually universal acclaim, and now it’s out in paperback. To cap it all, the third and final instalment of Leigh Fermor’s travel memoir recalling his epic walk across Europe in the 1930’s, The Broken Road, is to appear in the UK in September of this year.

Like probably everyone else who has read it, I enjoyed Artemis Cooper’s biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure. As his literary executor she is obviously a safe pair of hands to give us an overview of  his life. It helps if you have five star material to work with in the first place. To her credit Cooper takes no chances and produces a workmanlike narrative,  and in so doing avoids making a sow’s ear out of a silk purse.

I would recommend this book to anyone. However, I had reservations about it when I read it the first time around, and I still have them now. By the way, just to emphasise that I’m not having a dig at Cooper, these are similar to reservations I’ve had about other biographies in the past.

1) How do you avoid producing a lopsided biography, when your subject’s early life was so full of incident and the remainder was comparitively more sedate? By lopsided I mean devoting so much focus and so many pages to the incident filled first part, that the remainder of the book reads like a rushed afterthought the writer has been obliged to include. When I read the Leigh Fermor bio I was reminded of books I’d read about footballers and rock stars, where the life lived in their 20s and 30s was of such overwhelming interest, that the rest was quite obviously of less commercial value and was therefore whittled down to the bare minimum. The final few decades of Leigh Fermor’s life often felt like they were covered, to borrow a phrase of his, “in tearing haste”.

Perhaps the ending of a biography is best thought of like a plane journey: you want an orderly, well-paced descent to the end, not a crash landing.

2) Why rely mainly on printed sources if you can use other ones too? I was struck by one thing in this book: there was a relative lack of interview material. There’re probably acceptable reasons for this, such as most of the people who knew him being dead, but there are people who knew him who are still alive (a few of whom were spoken to), and I wonder why Leigh Fermor himself wasn’t interviewed at length for this book. Perhaps it wasn’t practical to do so, but either way it’s a shame. Samuel Beckett’s official biographer James Knowlson was unable to complete his interviews with the Irishman before he died, but what material Knowlson had he put in his book to great effect.

I have to be honest here and say that before I read the biography I’d read In Tearing Haste, the collection of letters between PLF and Deborah Devonshire. That these sketch the broad outline of of PLF’s post-war life, and that Cooper quotes liberally from them, suggests this was one of her main sources of material. Cooper of all people was best placed to have gone further than this.

3) Unanswered questions. The book kept me interested because PLF’s life itself was a gripping affair and made for a good story, but what it seemed light on was much sustained attempt to interpret his behaviour.  Biographers don’t have to be  psychologists, but personally I think it makes for a better book if there’s some attempt to explore motives and motivations, to identify patterns of behaviour across the course of a life.  It’s something that a biographer is sometimes better placed to do than someone writing their own story (see Tony Iommi below). For me, the great unanswered question in this biography is why wasn’t PLF the writer more prolific? Why couldn’t he get volume three of his travel memoir finished? One of the parts I found funniest relates to the 1960s, where PLF was commissioned to write 2,000 words on the war in Crete for a compendium volume about battles of the Second World War. Deadlines came and went, attempts were made to write the piece. It then spiralled out of control into far more than 2,000 words. He tried to cut it. He failed. The piece eventually went unpublished and the publisher who made the original commission ended up bitterly regretting it.  I suspect similar games ensued when he tried to get Volume Three of the travel memoir down on paper.

Although Cooper makes some attempt to explain this, I never felt like I got a clear answer. I can infer all sorts of things for myself, but what if there’s a key to it all that we aren’t being told? I spy the opportunity for another biography a few years down the line here!

Edward John Trelawney


The cover of David Crane’s biography, showing a portrait of Trelawney as he wished to be seen, the rakish Romantic hero.

After I’d finished Cooper’s book, it occurred to me it was like another biography I’d read years ago, Lord Byron’s Jackal by David Crane. Its subject is Edward john Trelawney, a complicated figure who became part of the Byron- Shelley circle in 1820’s Italy. After Shelley’s death Trelawney went to Greece with Byron to fight in the war of independence there. Trelawney proceeded to take an active part in the war and was almost killed. These were the crucial events of the first third of his life, but as is the way with biographies they take up a good three quarters of the the book.

What Crane does, however, is use all of the available sources to make sure that he gives fitting coverage to the second half of Trelawney’s life. You can forgive Crane for not dwelling too much on the time he spent as a farmer in rural Wales. But he is excellent in describing Trelawney’s move back to London as an older man, where he found fame among a new generation of writers and artists, milking his status as a friend of Byron and Shelley’s for all it was worth.

The constant thread of argument running through this book is also very interesting and convincing. Trelawney was essentially a nobody who desperately wanted to be a somebody. By the time he arrived in Italy and joined the poets’ circle he had invented an entire life story for himself, involving high adventure that he had never truly known. Irony of ironies, though, once in the orbit of true greats he found himself living a genuinely dramatic existence, and was able to match up to it. The result was his being forever woven into Romantic legend, and his becoming something of a legend in his own lifetime.

Tony Iommi


After starting the first draft of his autobiography himself, Tony realised that he’d need a lot of speaker cones to cover his whole life story, so decided to hire a ghostwriter with a dictaphone.

Iommi’s book Iron Man: My Journey through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath is one of those show business books where the subject basically sits down and speaks into the ghost writer’s dictaphone. The saving grace here, though, is that the scribe has barely done anything to the prose, save for taking out the umms and ers. If you’ve ever heard Iommi interviewed you’ll know that not only is he the man of a thousand riffs, but he’s also got just as many good stories to tell, the fruits of a rock and roll life.  Told in a down-to-earth, deadpan style in best West Midlands tradition, this is one of the best rock books I have ever read. It literally is just one bloke telling his own story with no attempts at lengthy self analysis or justification. I mean how can you really explain setting fire to the drummer or even painting the poor bloke gold? These are just the stories, take them or leave them, make of them what you will.  Similarly his attempt to explain taking vast amounts of cocaine doesn’t get much past “it was there, we were bored between gigs, I liked it at first but then it took hold”. Is there much else to say? Unlike the big question mark over PLF’s writing  methods (see above) Iommi justifies the matter of fact approach.  

It’s to Iommi’s credit that he avoids the psychobabble that too many rock books get mired in.  He also pulls no punches about the darker years. It would have been easy to produce a ‘lopsided’ life, focussed mainly on the 70’s glory days and fast forwarding to the late 90’s revival and eventual elevation to rock legend status,  but instead the book is made stronger by giving equal coverage to all parts of his career.

Colin Wilson, Terry Eagleton and the paying of dues.

Krapp: Just been listening to [a recording of] that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that.

-from Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett.

It seems that it’s not just poor old VICTOR KRAPP who can’t look back on his younger self  without feelings of scorn and pity. This post has been provoked by a piece in The Guardian which appeared a couple of days ago. As part of a series of articles entitled “A book that changed me” the English academic and literary critic TERRY EAGLETON contributed a piece on the spell cast on his youthful 50’s self by COLIN WILSON’S THE OUTSIDER.

You can read the article here:

“Colin Wilson’s glumness entranced me as a budding teenaged existentialist” runs the article’s header, as Eagleton goes on to mock his younger self for the fact that the book helped him play the poseur. It fed his teenage sense of how to seem terribly serious and clever and in so doing, he hoped, it would help him pull equally serious and angst-ridden girls, who would be entranced by his anguished cleverness.  But who is Eagleton fooling? However much he tries to distance himself from his youthful self and Wilson’s book, it’s obvious that the work was one of those stepping stones towards an academic career of lofty thoughts and high seriousness. My bet is that from The Outsider he went on to read more about many of the authors referenced in that book.

As such you might expect Eagleton to show some positive feeling towards Wilson, but the whole article is not only a put-down of his youthful pretentious self: it also delivers a metaphorical slap in the face to the older writer.

This passage struck me as being gratuitous, not to mention just plain discourteous:

The Outsider is second-rate, off-the-peg philosophy from start to finish. There was also a glowing commendation from Cyril Connolly, who later confessed he hadn’t read it. The book was declared by one commentator to have turned its 24-year-old author into the most controversial intellectual in Britain. So it did, but only for about six weeks. He went on to publish a rather dismal series of potboilers on crime and the occult.

“SECOND-RATE, OFF-THE-PEG PHILOSOPHY”? A tad emotive, but maybe Eagleton has a point. When I tried to read The Outsider it struck me as being over-reliant on quotations at the expense of more original material. However, to give Wilson credit, while he does quote copiously he quotes relevantly. Despite the misgivings of some, the book has been continuously in print since 1956.

The parts about controversy, celebrity and unreliable recommendations at least seem to have some basis in fact, and are covered in, among other places, Wilson’s own autobiography.

But it’s the final sentence that I object to most. Colin Wilson is a much maligned figure in the United Kingdom. While a lot of people have enjoyed his books and got a lot from them, as far as the media are concerned it’s been pretty much a given that you can put him down.  Now I’ll cut Eagleton a bit of slack and admit that anyone whose spent their career as an academic knows the meaning of the word dismal.  For all the good days, in his career he must also have read a fair few indifferent student essays, and would have had to wade through reams of the poorer kind of literary criticism.  However, in Wilson’s case, though not all of his works are A1 quality, there are certain standout books. So for Eagleton to dismiss all of the man’s 150 plus volumes as dismal is not only lazy.


Take THE OCCULT, for example. I’m not sure that was a potboiler. Yes it tapped into that late 60’s/ early 70’s vogue for all things esoteric and occult, but in many ways it helped shaped tastes and interests too. In fact, alongside The Outsider I think it may be Wilson’s most representative work. Essentially these books are digests of other thinkers’ and writers’ work. Wilson is a voracious reader and a great synthesiser of material. Although he tries to marshall this formidable reading to illustrate an underlying thesis of his own, where I think a lot of people find him of most use is as a conduit. It was through The Occult that I moved on to  writers like Francis Yates. But I still keep a copy of The Occult because it’s almost a one-stop encyclopaedia of folklore, esoteric beliefs and weird stuff that have been a constant strand of european thought and culture for millennia. It’s also entertainingly written, even when it asks me to suspend my personal sense of disbelief almost beyond endurance.

Another book of Wilson’s that totally defies Eagleton’s description is POLTERGEIST! Again this is Wilson at his best: engaged, engaging, and an enthusiastic guide to a strange and deeply unsettling set of events that gripped a particular house in 70’s England. At the end of that book I am not sure if I bought Wilson’s theory as to what was actually going on. However, whether one sees the poltergeist phenomenon as the result of diabolical intervention, or the result of some incredibly talented hoaxers, surely it would be only the most materially fixated of Marxist critics who could exhibit not even a shred of interest in something which has been puzzling, perplexing and fascinating people for aeons.

I could mention other books, but I will readily admit that there are whole chunks of Wilson’s canon that I haven’t looked at, like his fiction.

At his worst I will readily admit that Wilson rehashes material, goes over the same old ground, or produces books that are just generalised surveys of a particular subject. I suspect that on a number of occasions he has been guilty of hacking out work to please his bank manager. Nonetheless, this too in its way is grounds for respecting him. After all this is a man who has lived and brought up his family by the proceeds of his pen. By and large he has been true to his muse and retained his integrity.  To put it bluntly he’s worked his arse off.

There is one anecdote concerning Wilson which I’ve always thought was very telling. In his excellent and not-dismal-at-all autobiography DREAMING TO SOME PURPOSE, he mentions meeting Iris Murdoch at a function during the late 50’s. He says that Murdoch suggested that he should go to Oxford University in order to take his  philosophical studies further.  Wilson did not take up the offer.  No doubt he felt happier going his own way. Neither did the older Wilson looking back on this express regret. Now I am no-one to tell other people how to live their lives, and of course it’s all (excuse pun) academic now at Wilson’s age. But it strikes me that Murdoch had a point, and that she knew that, in the United Kingdom at least, it’s easier to get a hearing for your views- however controversial,  left-of-centre or speculative they may be- if you are covered by a veneer of academic respectability. After all, this has  certainly helped Terry Eagleton.

For the record I’ll say that I don’t read Colin Wilson much anymore. But I am glad that I had a spell of reading him.  His books have done their job for me and enabled me to go deeper into certain subjects, but I wouldn’t have been aware of them were it not for his work in the first place. Wilson’s prodigious output seems to have tailed off at last, but he is getting on in years. Perhaps fate will be kind and see him publish one more book.

As for Terry Eagleton, I’ve only read Marxism and Literary Theory (at least I think that’s the title). While I can’t remember anything of what he said about how to interpret texts from a hard left standpoint, I’ll give him credit for two things. Firstly he made me realise that literary criticism could be accessible, and that some academic critics were writers of clear, plain english. That made it a lot easier to pick my way through that field of writing. Secondly he added to my then-emerging sense that if you wanted to make sense of the world you’d better have a pretty sound grasp of economics and its influence on human behaviour, artistic or otherwise.

Siddhartha’s little brother? A review of Knulp by Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse’s Knulp was a complete chance discovery in a second hand book shop. I think it was the third book by Hesse I’d read after his equally overlooked Wandering and Steppenwolf. I had also tried The Glass Bead Game (I say tried because I soon gave up, not thinking I was clever enough to take it all in at the time, and to be honest I still don’t).

I don’t think anyone would call Knulp one of Hesse’s major works, but all the same I thoroughly enjoy it. In terms of not only the date of its writing, but also the themes it explores, I’ve always thought of it as something of a stepping stone between Hesse’s earlier work (Peter Camenzind springs to mind) and his later 1920’s output. While I’m not claiming that Knulp is the equal of later linked works like Siddhartha, I do think that if you enjoyed the latter then you will get a lot out of the former.

I would describe Knulp as a novella. Written in 1915, its subtitle is “Three Scenes from the life of Knulp”, and as this suggests it consists of three episodes that shed some light on the character. Knulp the man is in fact a tramp. On one level he can be seen as a happy-go-lucky itinerant, who never settled on any one form of employment, just as he could never settle in one place. Rather than a settled orderly life of work and domesticity, he prefers to wander from town to town, making friends along the way and generally approaching everyone and every situation with an open and optimistic outlook. Hesse is keen to emphasise this aspect of his character’s nature. Indeed, Knulp is told by someone late on in the book (and I won’t say by whom because that’d be a giveaway for those who haven’t read it), “you were a wanderer […] and wherever you went you brought the settled folk a little homesickness for freedom”. In other words this wanderer’s presence serves to bring a little light and levity into the lives of the people he encounters, a carefree and happy counterpoint to the humdrum workaday lives of those he encounters.

Taking all this on board, Knulp starts to take on more significance, and as a character he symbolises the tension between the conflicting pulls of domesticity and freedom, between responsibilities to others and loyalty to one’s own needs and desires. Add Knulp, then, to the lineup of Hesse characters caught between society’s expectations of what they should be and how they should behave, and their own yearning for the freedom to do things a different way.

Part 1 of Knulp is entitled “Spring” and introduces us to the eponymous hero, his ways and his way of life. Taking place in southern Germany in the 1890’s, Knulp’s encounters in this episode epitomise the kind of character that he is. Dropping in unannounced during early Spring on old travelling companion Emil Rothfuss (now a tanner), Knulp awakens in this old friend nostalgia for his younger days. Other people Knulp encounters in the village also find their lives enhanced by the stranger’s open, honest and attractive nature. Rothfuss’s reflections on his friend help give a flavour of the effect Knulp has on these people:

“Lucky man”, the tanner reflected with a twinge of envy. [Knulp] wanted nothing of life but to look on, and the tanner could not have said whether or not this was asking too much or too little. a man who worked hard and got ahead was better in many ways, but he could never have such delicate, graceful hands or walk with so light and jaunty a step. No, Knulp was right in doing what his nature demanded and what few others could do, in speaking to strangers like a child and warming their hearts, in saying pleasant things to ladies of all ages, and making Sundays out of weekdays. You could only take him as he was and when he needed a roof over his head it was a pleasure to give him one, indeed you almost wanted to thank him, for he bought lightness and gaiety into the house. 

However, Knulp is no one-dimesnsional figure, and not everything in his life is sweetness and light. Part Two of the book is called “My Recollections of Knulp”, and it consists of what an unnamed, unidentified narrator remembers of a short spell spent tramping through the country with Knulp. This is a far denser and more philosophical part of the book, far too detailled to try and summarise here, since it mainly takes the form of conversations between the narrator and Knulp. However, my general impression is that it adds force and depth to Knulp’s portrayal, giving some insight into why he lives the life he does and his justification for it. For example, explaining why he never married Knulp has this to say:

Every human being has his soul, he can’t mix it with any other. Two human beings can meet, they can talk with one another, they can be close together. But their souls are like flowers, each rooted to its place. One can’t go to another, because it would have to break away from its roots, and that it can’t do. Flowers end out their scent and their seeds, because they would like to go to each other; but a flower can’t do anything to make a seed go to its right place; the wind does that, and the wind comes and goes where it pleases.

Whether we as readers agree with this or not, such thoughts of Knulp’s serve to highlight one of the many contradictions in his life: while he goes out of his way to be courteous and upbeat in his dealings with others, at the same time he feels an essential loneliness and isolation from others.

It’s just occurred to me on re-reading this particular passage that Hesse is trying very hard to press the symbolic significance of his character. I’m loathe to identify any fictional character with his or her creator too much, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at the time of writing Knulp Hesse’s own life and work were at something of a crisis point. The author’s marriage and home life were breaking down, and he was an increasingly unpopular figure in his native Germany given his views on the War, something that would lead him to a life outside that country. I’m not saying that Knulp is Hesse. However, I think that in general terms Knulp the book is in part an investigation of what it might be like to live on the margins as a completely free spirit, and he represents that yearning many people have to just let everything drop and get away from it all. I also think that on some level Knulp’s loneliness and restlessness can be seen to represent the struggles of an artist. After all, Knulp partly earns his way on the road by singing songs, playing the accordion and telling tales. As we have seen, he brings a little light and life to others, but at some cost to himself. To follow his star he’s had to forsake the comforts of a stable home, love and even- it is heavily implied at one point- his own child.

To go into too much detail about part three would be to give a lot away, since it’s a crucial part of the book. The title- “The End”- gives you a lot of its flavour. By this time a consumptive Knulp, now in his 40s- runs into an old schoolfriend who is now a doctor. Cue a lot of reminiscing, some surprising revelations about Knulp’s own past, and a touching and somewhat uplifting ending.

My verdict on Knulp is that it’s certainly worth reading if you have read other works by Hesse. It’s certainly not as polished and fully realised as his other novels, but I don’t get the feeling it was meant to be: its episodic and fragmented structure works well on its own terms in order to shed different kinds of light on Knulp at different stages on his journey through life. In fact a bit like Knulp himself, the book quickly draws you in, gives you a little food for thought, doesn’t outstay its welcome but sticks around in the memory.

Other Hesse works are justly more celebrated and cemented his reputation as a great writer. All the more reason, though, not to overlook some of the lesser known works in his canon like this.

Budd Schulberg: The Disenchanted.


The late Budd Schulberg:  “Don’t meet your heroes”goes the saying, but Schulberg was able to turn his encounter with Fitzgerald into a very good novel indeed.


Hollywood, late 1930’s. Shep Stearns, budding screenwriter, is overjoyed and overawed to be taken on by Milgrim Pictures at $2,000 a week, to work on a script with his idol, the novelist Manley Halliday. A bestselling author lauded (and loaded) to the gills in the 1920’s, by the late 30’s Halliday has long gone quiet, and is glad just to be taken on to earn some money to try and pay off his extensive bills and buy some time to work on a novel in progress. Aged 40 (but feeling twice as old), diabetic, and desperately trying to keep on the wagon, this is nothing like the dream job for him that it is for Shep. Told to write a fluffy romantic musical comedy set at an Ivy League University, everything starts to go wrong once they head East to Webster College, supposedly to gather background information. Things aren’t helped by having the producer Victor Milgrim along with them (his eye is on an honourary degree, which he thinks the presence of the great Halliday will help him obtain). To add to the trouble a camera unit is also in tow, there to shoot some pick up footage as per a rough script from Stearns and Halliday. Shep’s initial hero-worship soon turns to disbelief and finally disenchantment when Halliday falls off the wagon, the script doesn’t get written and things go terribly and tragically wrong.

You probably know Schulberg for “On the Waterfront” and “What Makes Sammy Run”.  Before he wrote that script, during his early Hollywood screenwriting days, he encountered F.Scott Fitzgerald, and Halliday is essentially a barely veiled portrait of the great writer in his latter years. This book is well worth seeking out if you admire Schulberg’s other work or are interested in what happened to Fitzgerald later on in his life and want a counterpoint to the novelist’s own writing about his ‘crack up’ phase and what came after. “The Disenchanted”, however, is well worth reading in its own right. The basic plot is very, very strong, and it’s a book you will want to read until the end since the main characters of Stearns and Halliday are well drawn, the kind most readers will want to get to know and understand. The relationship between the two men is very well described, and the way Shep’s early enchantment with his hero Halliday rapidly sours is convincingly handled.

That’s not to say I didn’t find the book without its faults. The start is rather drawn out, perhaps by design, since it depicts the slow, uncertain life of an aspiring screen writer, which seems to consist of a lot of hanging around waiting for a phone call (cue scenes of Shep Stearns staying up to all hours in a bar, waiting for a call from movie mogul Milgrim, a man who works odd hours and expects others to keep them too). Things really get going once Schulberg introduces Halliday and Milgrim. Halliday is clearly a very complex character, a man desperately trying to keep on the wagon in order to try and write another novel. As a depiction of a writer and an alcoholic it rings true. All that close up observation of Fitzgerald clearly helped, but it still needed Schulberg’s gifts to make Halliday a compelling character in his own right.

Later on, the escapades of the two writers on their fact-finding trip are similarly good, illustrating the changing relationship between the two. Shep began as idolising Halliday, but as mentioned this soon changes. Less engaging, I found, were the long flashbacks as Halliday went back over his rip-roaring 20’s glory years. Schulberg could have done with a better editor there and tried less hard to write like Henry James.

However, these are personal criticisms and other readers may think I’m too harsh. Ultimately, I think this book is a very strong study of two different ‘disenchanted’ characters: the once-great writer desperately trying to rekindle whatever made him great in the first place, and the young aspirant desperate to establish himself.

Given that the story is so strong, that it has cracking dialogue, and it’s a convincing study of two different characters, I think it’d make a great radio play. Any producers reading this then get in touch. I’d write it at the drop of a hat for you!

Steven Runciman: A History of the Crusades Volume 1.

I’d say a good third or thereabouts of the books that I own are from charity shops. Originally I used to shop in them because I was a poor student. Then it just became a habit. These days I still look in from time to time knowing that there’s a good chance I’ll pick up an interesting book. I like the random element of going in somewhere and perhaps walking out with a book which will set me off on a completely different course. It’s never been the same for me in bookshops. PArtly due to the far wider choice on offer, I can’t just browse until something takes my fancy: there’s just too much choice and I somehow lose the will. But in charity shops it’s easier to scan the shelves and perhaps come away with a gem.

So it happened the other week in a branch of Oxfam Books. I saw all three volumes of Steven Runciman’s History of the Crusades bundled together, and thought that they would be worth getting. I had long thought I ought to do some proper reading on this key period in history, and these books seemed as good a place as any to start. I knew of Runciman’s reputation and thought that I could do a lot worse.

My copies, by the way, are paperback editions in Penguin’s old Peregrine imprint. Back in the old days, Penguin was mainly for novels, plays, and poems. Meanwhile Pelican was the imprint for non-fiction works of a more serious and/ or academic bent. So I can only assume that to be a Peregrine writer you had to have produced the weightiest of tomes.

Since getting the books last week, I’ve rattled through Volume One, and I enjoyed it immensely. I realise that a book published in the early 50’s is no longer at the cutting edge of historical research or interpretation, as was once the case with this work. It seems that in the light of recent global events the Crusades are again going through a period of re-evaluation. For that reason, I think, a layman like me welcomes the chance to read a book like Runciman’s, which by his own design tried to give an overview of the whole epoch. As he famously stated in his preface to Volume one,  “I believe that the supreme duty of the historian is to write history, that is to say, to attempt to record in one sweeping sequence the greater events and movements that have swayed the destinies of man”.

That’s not to commit himself to a simple narrative account. Implicit in his description of the crusading enterprise and the crusaders themselves is the impression I got that he considered most of them to be boorish chancers. A good number of the Knights and nobles who made their way east it seems paid lip service to the notion of liberating the holy land in the name of Christ. However, their true intentions were less than pure, and a lot of them were in it to see what they could get in terms of plunder and staking a claim to the conquered lands on offer.

I am now also a great admirer of Runciman’s written style. Here is a man who makes a virtue of plainness and simplicity. Having finished Volume One feeling completely enlightened, I think I’m going to have to pitch in to Volume Two straight away.


Robert Graves. Part One: Never mind “Goodbye To All That”. Try saying hello to all his other writing.

Almost thirty years since his death, the english poet and writer Robert Graves remains well known. However most people, if they read him at all, read his justly celebrated World War One memoir cum general autobiography Goodbye To All That, and his entertaining novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God. They remain well worth reading and remain steady earners for the Graves estate.

Classics as they are, however, there is far, far more to Graves than these two works.  He is by no means a ‘forgotten’ writer, and there are enough devotees and academics to ensure that he doesn’t fade entirely from view (there’s an active and well-organised Robert Graves Society for example). However, I do think that he’s in danger of fading from view, or at best being seen as a ‘two-trick pony’,  as far as the non-specialist, general reader is concerned.

Over the course of a long and busy writing life, Graves showed himself to be a superb all-rounder, producing fiction, literary criticism and other scholarly works, and many superb poems. Personally I think it’ll be these poems on which his reputation will ultimately rest. Certainly Graves himself thought so, and he considered himself to be a poet first and prose writer second. Prose, Graves often said, was a necessary part of his writing life and it certainly paid the bills. But it was poetry that was his first love, and his true calling. I’ve been reading Graves for a number of years now, and I’ve always thought that he is at his best in his poetry. Certainly the poems do the most to get you to the heart of what this constantly intriguing and incisive writer is all about. Hardly any other poet I’ve read has provided me with so consistently an unexpected and original way of perceiving things.

He wrote many poems in his life, and was also something of a vicious editor of his own work. Fortunately a one-volume “Complete Poems” is available. It prints everything he published during his lifetime, and proves how right he was to heed his poetic calling time and again.

What is his work like? For me, Graves is the most complete poet I can think of. To use that term again, he’s a great all-rounder and very much his own man. If twentieth century poetry is a literature of movements, then I’m not really sure you  can categorise Graves. In his early years he had poems published in the Georgian anthologies. In the 20’s and 30’s he was loosely allied with the Modern movement (he even publish a book entitled “A Survey of Modernist Poetry” with former lover, muse and collaborator Laura Riding). But from the 40’s you could argue he was pretty much on his own, his work defined by his own particular voice and thematic concerns.

Stylistically he wasn’t really an innovator, but he was a superb and unshowy technician (the merciless drafting and redrafting of almost every poem on offer here made sure his ideas and feelings received their clearest expression, couched in their most fitting form). But if the form of his verse holds no major surprises, in terms of subject matter I can’t think of another poet who covers so many bases so convincingly. He is rightly hailed as one of the finest love and lyric poets in the language. Indeed, many of these poems were inspired by his (in)famous devotion to the notion of the muse and to his muses. But to categorise him as ‘just’ a love poet- noble calling as it is- is to do him as much a disservice as to see him as ‘just’ a First World War poet. He ranges far wider. Indeed, Graves’s concerns and interests must have been incredibly wide to judge by the subjects touched on in this collection: religion, mythology, fatherhood, loss, desire, obsession, politics, society, language, the writing of poetry, the poetic impulse, domestic life… I could go on.

Here’s an example.  This poem, called “Under the Pot”, displays Graves’s gift of providing an unexpected take on things, but doing it with an authority that can leave you thinking ‘I never thought of that. He has a point’:


Sulkily the sticks burn, and though they crackle

With scorn under the bubbling pot, or spout

Magnanimous jets of flame against the smoke,

At each heel end a dirty sap breaks out.

Confess, creatures, how sulkily ourselves

We hiss with doom, fuel of a sodden age-

Not rapt up roaring to the chimney stack

On incandescent clouds of spirit or rage.

This illustrates two of his chief poetic virtues which are brevity and incisiveness. He hardly wrote any long poems and most of his verses are straight to the point. He also had the gift not only of being able to turn a memorable phrase, but also of adopting a fresh perspective on things. Some of his best poems (masterpeices such as “To Juan at the WInter Solstice” or “The Cool Web”) made a big impression on me when I first read them, and yet they have a knack of yielding up something new each time I return to them.

In my opinion Graves’s Collected Poems has all the charm and merit of Thomas Hardy’s or WB Yeats’s respective Collected Poems: that is to say that they all contain absolute classics that you keep coming back to, but they’re all great for dipping into, since there’s so much on offer that you’re bound to find a new gem that you weren’t aware of before or had overlooked. So whether it’s just for browsing or for digging deep, the main thing is about such great volumes of poetry is that you keep reading them, and consequently they will remain on your bookshelf for life.

Just a word of warning if you’re buying a book of Graves’s poetry. As mentioned above he had a habit of editing out of the canon works of his he no longer liked or thought rang true.  If you have one of the numerous ‘Collected Poems’ published during his lifetime, you won’t have all the poems.  The ‘Complete Poems’ reverses that decision. As for the poems themselves, I’ve indicated above how in my view he’s right up there with the greats, but how he’s also a complete original. Other poets might be better, but I think very few range wider. Like other great poets though he  distilling his own poetic voice.

You’ll hear that voice so clearly in his verse, a heady mix of the practical and the inspirational. It’s a voice of authority, rather clipped and formal at times, with a touch of the army officer about it (he never could get over the war in more ways than one). But it’s mixed with a tremendous sense of awe and wonder about the world. It’s rather like being in the presence of a great teacher who constantly beckons you on, showing you things you’ve never seen before, or pointing out different ways of seeing familiar things. You may learn from him. You may disagree with him. But he’ll make you think. And you’ll never be bored.

In part two (to be posted whenever I can get round to it!) I’ll write about some of his other prose works that I think you’ll like.